By: Fawzan Amer
The Difficult Valuation of a Young Role Player
The offseason was a ride for the Orlando Magic as they executed an imperious all-time tank job down the stretch going 6-12 in the final set of games and finishing with an overall record of 22-60, holding the second-worst record in the NBA. All in hopes of falling deep into the lottery mix and replenishing some of the talents they lost through multiple trades. The Orlando Magic decided to detonate their lineup and send their top players elsewhere in exchange for young assets in hopes of a reset to a roster that failed to make it out of the first round since 2009-10, making the playoffs only twice in the last decade, drowning in an endless loop of mediocrity. In doing so, the Magic found themselves with RJ Hampton, whom they were admittedly high on during the pre-draft process. The team went on to select Cole Anthony with the 15th overall pick but soon found themselves having both first-round picks from the 2020 draft.
After a much-anticipated wait, much to the distress of Magic fans, the basketball universe is finally getting a taste of what RJ Hampton can do on a basketball floor. Frequently we see players selected outside of the lottery go under the radar, and that's held true to RJ Hampton's status, as he is certainly finding a way to make other franchises jealous based on the flashes we’ve seen. Coming into this season, Hampton was a castaway on the depth chart, buried behind a plethora of lottery picks who sought daylight and opportunity before him. RJ is a compelling player with all the tools to fit in and enhance just about any lineup he’s in. It’s arduous to get breathing room on a team with so many mouths to feed. However, for a team deprived of talented offensive players to pair in everlasting lineup changes due to being plagued with injuries, Hampton has yet to be utilized as many had anticipated in this stretch of the season. It's a confusing approach to not fully utilize him, especially given the injuries and the fact that Aaron Gordon was traded in the deal to acquire him. Not only has RJ Hampton not seen the light of day in any of the various starting lineups Head Coach Jamahl Mosley has cast, but his workload has
also remained limited. He's averaging 17.2 minutes per game — the fewest he’s played since his rookie season in Denver and the 3rd fewest on the Magic this season. These events can be damning for a 21-year-old attempting to make his mark in the NBA. Not Hampton, though, as he's shown incredible resiliency and calmness in the face of adversity.
He impacts the game in various ways; his long strides and shiftiness of offensive presence have aided him in swiping 2.5 deflections per 100 possessions (2nd most) and has tallied 16 in total on the season thus far (3rd most). He’s a non-stop energy player who seems to have mastered hustle, length, and anticipation and is always on the prowl to get his team the ball back to create more scoring opportunities. However, due to his low usage hasn’t paid dividends for the undermanned Magic, befuddled with injuries averaging the second-lowest points per game.
Through 18 appearances, he's averaging 15 points (6th most) PER 36 minutes while shooting 43.6 percent from the floor and .509 from two-point range. He's had plenty of stretches where he gets hot and gives the Magic a much-needed spark of adrenaline off the bench. To append to his bag of tricks on the offensive end, Hampton is developing a stroke from beyond the arc as it has looked relatively automatic thus far, shooting it (34.8%). Although it’s not a large sample size, Hampton shoots 2.6 threes per game. Of those attempts, 1.8 have come from catch-shoot threes (36.4%).
RJ has also displayed a dynamic ability to make pull-up 3-pointers when utilizing ball screens off Orlando's bigs. Although Hampton doesn’t shoot pull-ups often, when he does decide to let it fly from downtown, he’s hitting them at a (30.8%) clip
Hampton's underrated handle, unreal passing skills, and ability to score off the dribble have given the Magic a breath of fresh air on offense despite critical losses at the guard position with Fultz and Anthony missing time due to injury. It has been a luxury for Orlando to have another quick ball-handler that can run line drives to the basket and finish with contact at the rim with backdoor cuts. When the defense runs him off the line and opens a gap on the floor, Hampton is cerebral and decisive with his drives most times. The ability to maintain his balance while showing off impressive footwork is rejuvenating for an offense that struggles to create half-court nuances. This season alone, Hampton has shot 51.4% at the rim, operating at multiple speeds.
He has done an excellent job molding one of his more underrated traits, which has been how often he gets downhill using ball screens from opposing bigs (Wendell Carter/Mo Bamba) in order to navigate pressure at the rim averaging 5.4 drives per game (5th most) this has played imperative to his 2.5 drive points per game.
His patience in the pick-and-roll and deciphering the defense has played a role in not only his offensive efficiency but how he’s been able to create windows for his teammates. Hampton is 4th amongst all Magic players in assist ratio at an astounding 18.6 rate racking up 30 assists on the season (5th most). Players shoot 34.4% from beyond the arc when connecting on RJ’s passes. His vision to create offense via passing is instrumental to his long-term success, albeit in Orlando or elsewhere.
In contrast to everything Hampton provides, he is no vanguard on defense. However, in his limited minutes, there has been a continued progression from him in countering different
defensive looks in off-ball screen attacks. He has shown terrific instincts at times, swiping passes and forcing turnovers at a high clip this year by rotating over for a late double and poking loose balls.
Although he does a good job protecting the basketball and limiting turnover rates, a vast part of Hampton’s development over the next few years will center on his playmaking vision out of those ball screens. He’ll have to tone down the tempo of his game as his biggest struggles manifest from decision-making. His speed in transition disinfects his ability to play under more control and composure when attacking. Too often still, Hampton is going to the basket with some reckless abandonment. In transition, he scores 1.27 points per possession on 62.5% EFG (75.4 percentile). Although his numbers have improved in this category, he has tendencies in transition where a bad case of tunnel vision appears. In his limited minutes, sometimes he tends to over-play instead of making the proper reads.. Opting to force tough shots across his body and predetermines the shots he will attempt instead of scanning the court in transition for better looks.
The Magic declined Hampton's $4.2 million team option for the 2023-24 season. In 94 games with the Magic, he has averaged 8.4 PPG, 3.5 RPG, and 2.5 APG on .402/.343/.649 shooting splits. His declined option was worth $4,220,057, so the Magic will be prohibited from offering him a first-year salary worth more than that in free agency next summer if he finishes the season on the roster. The Magic have seven lottery picks on the roster, and no signs thus far are pointing to the 24th overall pick getting the green light and seeing an inclination of minutes, especially with Markelle Fultz and Cole Anthony set to return soon. Hampton will continue to find himself in the darkness on the outside looking in when it comes to playing time as it plays into fruition with the process the Magic have attributed to declining Hampton's option. We’ve already seen R.J. Hampton gets the short end of the stick, and it's sensible to conjecture Hampton could find himself out of the rotation entirely at some point in the near future despite his play suggesting otherwise.
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